• U.S.

SOVIET UNION: Rasputin Is In

4 minute read

Much ado about a sexy monk

“RaRa Rasputin, lover of the Russian Queen/ Russia’s greatest love machine.”

Those improbable lyrics, belted out by a Jamaican reggae-rock group called Boney M., are from the hottest pop tune in the Soviet Union. In restaurants and bars throughout the country last week, disc jockeys were spinning the group’s recording of Rasputin, which has been issued by the government record company Melodiya. At the same time, curiously, the sellout novel of the year depicts Grigori Rasputin’s sexual escapades, including boudoir frolics with Russia’s last empress, the Tsarina Alexandra.

Our Contemporary, the journal of the Russian Writers Union, is currently serializing At the Last Frontier by Valentin Pikul. The book is a canny mix of fact and rumor about the monk, whose skill in doctoring the Tsarina’s sick son gained him inordinate influence over the royal family in the final decade of the Russian empire. By prudish Soviet standards, Pikul’s empurpled prose is downright lurid. In one key scene, for example, Rasputin sneaks up to the Tsarina as she prays for her hemophiliac son. Out of the shadows steps the “bony peasant, his face framed by long hair parted in the center and glistening with oil, his eyes emitting a kind of hypnotic sparkle.” The Tsarina shakes “in a fit of nervous excitement” as they gaze at each other. The monk scoops her up and strokes her. She slips her arms around his neck and cries, “More, more, carry me around the room.” With one eye half closed, he turns to the lady in waiting who had admitted him to the Tsarina’s apartment. ” ‘Get out of here,’ he orders …” The elliptic three dots invite the reader to imagine what happens next.

Author Pikul’s suggestion that the empress slept with Rasputin, for which there is no basis in fact, seems designed merely to appeal to the prurient interests of the proletariat. So do passages alluding to Rasputin’s vast sexual appetite and his zest for orgies—which have been amply documented by historians. But the book seemingly has other and more unsavory functions. One is to encourage the xenophobia that still has a strong hold on the many Russian chauvinists in the elite, who believe that alien forces have caused their homeland’s troubles down through the ages. One handy target is the German-born Alexandra, who is described in the novel as a featherbrained traitor to Russia. Pikul’s fictional Tsar Alexander III is quoted as saying of his future daughter-in-law and her German relatives, “I have a feeling they have a lot in their pants but very little under their hats.”

Even more striking is the book’s appeal to antiSemitism. According to Pikul, Rasputin was the tool of “Zionists,” who exploited his political influence on the imperial family, paying the monk off with bonds, cash and cases of his favorite Madeira. With backing from Jewish bankers, Rasputin and his secretary, Aaron Simonovich, allegedly owned several night clubs “with card tables, and a buffet frequented by strange-looking, svelte women with eyes big from cocaine.”

The tenuous basis for these charges is the historical fact that Rasputin, for a Russian of his time, was unusually friendly to Jews. Considering his besmirched reputation in other respects, Rasputin would appear to be an unlikely hero to Soviet human rights activists. But at least one celebrated dissident has taken up his cause. Andrei Amalrik told TIME last week that he was writing a book on Rasputin that would show the monk had a good influence on Tsar Nicholas II. “Rasputin was a very simple person with very good ideas,” said the exiled Russian writer, who is doing research at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif. “He wanted equal rights for Jews, a separate peace with Germany in World War I and the redistribution of land to the peasants.” Some historians will doubtless question Amalrik’s contentions that the legendary monk was really as good as all that. Still, in the words of the Boney M. song that is sweeping Russia, Rasputin was obviously “a cat that was really gone.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com